An Impromptu Farewell
Sudden and unforeseen changes at the senior diplomatic level affect relationships that demand stability and can have severe repercussions for the larger U.S strategy in the Af-pak region.
The U.S takes a strong blow as two of its most important ambassadors resign.
Apart from suffering a tense and complicated relationship with Pakistan and facing an uncertain troop withdrawal strategy in Afghanistan, the United States recently received a bigger blow, this time from two of its own.
U.S Ambassador in Afghanistan, Ryan Crocker and U.S Ambassador in Pakistan, Cameron Munter (incidentally two of the country’s most important ambassadors) have both pre-maturely resigned from their posts. Crocker’s departure comes at a time when the U.S is entering a new era of engagement with Afghanistan. Though NATO troop withdrawal is scheduled for 2014, the next two years will be paramount in determining the fate of Afghanistan, the possibility of a smooth transition and the country’s ability to sustain itself after international forces depart. Munter’s departure on the other hand, comes as the U.S-Pakistan relationship plunges into a deeper crisis which frankly, will continue to free-fall whether there is an ambassador or not.
NATO forces in Afghanistan face a precarious situation as they gear up to withdraw combat forces and train Afghan personnel to take the reins. Apart from trying to achieve the unachievable, the U.S has to ensure that Afghanistan is ready to not only take charge of its security but also its governance. How the U.S ends the “unwinnable war” will largely determine its long-term engagement with the region and quell the slew of international criticism it currently faces. A NATO withdrawal itself will be a complicated event but the years leading up to it will be equally trying and testing, needing the expertise of the men best suited for the job.
Former ambassador to Iraq, Ryan Crocker had warned about the risks of a U.S occupation and later tried to pursue a new military and diplomatic strategy to salvage a war-torn Iraq. Shortly after re-opening the embassy in Kabul, Crocker was named Ambassador to Pakistan. Having served the usual three-year term, he resigned. However, as events would play out, Crocker accepted the post of Ambassador to Afghanistan at the behest of President Obama and began his services in July 2011. After only 10 months, Crocker has submitted his resignation and will most likely be leaving the burden of duty on his deputy, James Cunningham.
Afghanistan is of particular significance because the U.S has already established a steady footprint and is now planning an exit strategy. Having already created a presence in the country and currently in the process of conducting dialogue with various power centers, the issue at the forefront is how the U.S will train forces and maintain a stable transition of power as it prepares to withdraw. Apart from a military strategy, it is imperative to display American long-term commitment to remaining engaged with Af-
ghanistan, marking a break from its previous withdrawal that it is adamant to avoid like the plague. This can only occur through well-planned diplomacy that absolutely must engage with civil society and include them in the decision-making process.
The game in Pakistan is, however, completely different. Whereas in Afghanistan an endgame is being discussed, the game has not even really begun in Pakistan as yet. It is in essence, a show of peppered events that contribute to a vacillating relationship.
Undoubtedly, the people of Pakistan have suffered enormously what with unaccounted for drone attacks, the infamous Raymond Davis debacle and the May 02 (2011) Abbottabad raid that most Pakistanis remain critical of. Though the episode prompted the people to question their army and hold their government accountable, a severe encroachment of Pakistan’s sovereignty remains a sensitive issue. If the situation wasn’t bad already, it was made worse when the ‘accidental’ killing of 24 Pakistani troops at the Salala checkpost in November 2011 lacerated the relationship even further, prompting Pakistan to take serious action and block NATO supplies to Afghanistan. The ‘snubbing’ it received at the NATO Summit in Chicago and the international criticism meted out to Pakistan after it stamped a 33 year jail term on Dr. Shakil Afridi, the doctor who aided the CIA in confirming Osama Bin Laden’s presence at the house in Abbottabad, is detrimental to a relationship already on the rocks.
It is against this backdrop that Washington’s man on the diplomatic frontline, Cameron Munter, has decided to prematurely and quietly, quit his job, just 18 months into it. Though rumors circulate that Munter was at odds with the official American handling of events in Pakistan, State Department spokesperson, Mark Toner, downplayed the situation saying, “This is at the conclusion of his tenure at the end of two years, which is a perfectly normal period for an ambassador to Pakistan.”
Munter assumed the role at a time when anti-Americanism was rampant in Pakistan and there was nothing more important than correcting America’s image in order to further the dialogue. It seemed, however, that ground realities were not being conveyed to the U.S (or that it simply had selective hearing) because as the situation grew graver, Munter’s work became more difficult. Though military cooperation remains dismal, insensitive diplomacy and harsh political rhetoric are far more damaging to public perception than anything else. While the U.S is Pakistan’s largest aid donor, money can’t buy love and the strategy of “winning hearts and minds” cannot be conducted solely through military and development aid but rather requires a committed partnership based on mutual trust and respect. Unfortunately, both Pakistan and the U.S are severely lacking on this front.
The sudden departure of two senior level diplomats from the region will certainly leave a dent in what are easily the most complicated bilateral relationships for the U.S and two that demand an increasing level of atten- tion, stability and understanding. It is imperative that all three countries dedicate efforts to rebuilding trust before it is too late. As Afghanistan prepares to stand on its own feet, Pakistan’s cooperation will be insurmountable and indispensable to the region as well as the U.S as it prepares to plan a responsible exit. Closer (and cleaner) ties with the U.S are in the long-term interests of AfPak and must extend beyond issues of military cooperation.
If a concerted effort is to be made then it must be remembered that all countries will not agree on most issues but working through them as committed and equal partners is essential. In this instance then, the job of a US Ambassador is paramount in determining public opinion and recommending the best way to engage in public diplomacy. A rapid change in senior frontline personnel is not healthy and is in fact detrimental to an already precarious situation.
For a relationship that is often victim to the vagaries of politics, perhaps some stability is in order. Arsla Jawaid is Assistant Editor at SouthAsia. A Boston University graduate, she holds a Bachelors degree in International Relations, with a focus on foreign policy and security studies.